Issue Number: 102
As a new Royal Academy walking guide reveals, London is full of Palladio-inspired buildings. Tim Abrahams asked architect and designer of the Palladio show, Eric Parry RA, to follow the trail. They met at Burlington House.
Eric Parry RA says he loves Palladio; he’s just not so sure about the Palladians. Given that we are about to embark upon a walk through central London that will take in the capital’s most famous Palladian architecture, his remark is just a little disconcerting.
Parry has a singular profile in UK architecture and London in particular; on the one hand designing swish Modernist commercial buildings in the City and on the other restoring buildings such as St Martin-in-the-Fields.
‘When you build anything in London you are dealing with the past in some way,’ Parry says, but that doesn’t do justice to the sympathy his work has expressed for the historical context of his buildings. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his view of Palladio and his followers is a sophisticated one, or that his design for the Royal Academy’s exhibition on Palladio has been so eagerly awaited. When we come to tear him away from the Academy, Parry is still working on the finishing touches, pondering whether he has chosen exactly the right blue for the frieze in the first room.
Although Parry is instinctively cautious about the way the designs and the theory of Palladio have been used to such varied ends in Britain throughout the centuries, he is a voracious reader of the architectural detail in front of him. He takes one look at the famous front elevation of Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy, where we start our walk, and begins to discern the familiar rhythms behind the colonnade added in the nineteenth century.
Here, in the first two floors, is the work of the great Palladian scholar and architect Colen Campbell. (The upper storey was added later.) ‘Campbell had obviously bought into the genius of Palladio. There’s no disputing that. He had fallen for the wonderfully vibrant scale and clarity of proportion,’ says Parry, who has clearly bought into it too.
In either 1717 or 1718, Lord Burlington had removed James Gibbs as architect on Burlington House and given the job to Campbell, ‘an architectural coup d’état’, as Parry describes it. As we discovered later in our walk, this was not the first time that Palladio’s influence was felt in Great Britain - you need only think of Inigo Jones - but in England Burlington House represents the birth of the movement known as Palladianism.
Parry clearly has a soft spot for poor old Gibbs, having himself spent the past seven years creating a subterranean extension to Gibbs’ masterpiece, the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. His admiration for Palladio himself, however, is on an altogether different scale. For Parry, like others before him, Palladio is almost the paragon of what an architect should be.
As we head down St James’s Street towards the Queen’s Chapel by Inigo Jones, it is clear that the designer of the RA show is spending a good deal of time thinking about how Palladio developed into such an exceptional artist: ‘With the exhibition I hope you can follow the emergence of his phenomenal talent.’ But as our thoughts turn to Inigo Jones and the chapel, Parry begins to soften towards the Palladians a little. It is, after all, thanks to a seventeenth-century British architect that the sixteenthcentury Italian is so alive to us in Britain today.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) owns nearly 300 designs and sketches by Palladio, most of which were once in the collection of Inigo Jones. These form an important part of the Academy’s show. ‘Jones had his own copy of Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (Four Books of Architecture, 1570) which he annotated, just as I’ve got my own,’ says Parry, patting his pocket. The treatise is another of the reasons why Palladio’s ideas so readily gave birth to Palladianism. ‘It is a beautiful, clear piece of book design with strong, stunning drawing. It shows that a great architect must be a great communicator too.’
After navigating the traffic at the end of St James’s Street, we turn the corner and get some idea of how powerful a transformation the Palladian approach offered in the early seventeenth century. Opposite the defensive Elizabethan walls of St James’s Palace, stands the bold Queen’s Chapel in its remarkably open setting. Most of the Palladian architecture we see now has been surrounded by the superannuated classicism of the Edwardian period that mimics it for scale and grandeur, but here we get some impression of what a challenge to the status quo the Palladian vision was.
‘The scaling of the Queen’s Chapel is inspired, with this suppressed order at the ground, then the bigger windows on either side of that very big window, marking the sacred space -
there’s a beautifully articulated rhythm in the proportions, which means that a small building can have an immense presence,’ he says. Yet we also see this building performing a theatrical trick that Palladio himself would have recognised. Although the corners of the building appear to have great cornerstones and the rustication on the ground floor appears to be made of equally sized stone, it is in fact made of brick and covered in render.
When, late in life, the Modernist architect James Stirling, who was schooled in the importance of being honest with materials, made a pilgrimage to Vicenza, where many of Palladio’s greatest buildings are to be found, he was shocked to discover that Palladio had made such recourse to sleight of hand in his urban villas. ‘For Palladio there are levels. You plan the villa and then you scale the rooms appropriately. Then you can repeat them, making the proportions clear,’ says Parry. If this involves a little falsification, then so be it. ‘After that you get to the fine tuning of an elevation and you have long discussions about the issue of decorum and the appropriateness of ornament to the use of the building.’
The Queen’s Chapel was originally commissioned as a means to show just how keen Charles I was to marry the Infanta Maria Anna, daughter of King Philip III of Spain, but was completed for his eventual queen, Henrietta Maria, daughter of King Henry IV of France - both women were Catholic. At the time, England was a predominantly Protestant country and the Catholic chapel became a charged site. Is the simplicity of its exterior decoration a sop to the Puritans who viewed ornament as ungodly?
Given the political and religious conjecture around this unique building, one understands why Parry is always keen to return to the certainties of Jones’s annotated copy of I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura: ‘Whatever happened, Jones stuck to his architectural principles,’ he points out. Continuing our walking tour, we pass across the bottom of Trafalgar Square, and into Whitehall. Here Palladianism again becomes embroiled in an ideological war. Inigo Jones began the Banqueting House - a bold take on the flat-roofed Palladian urban villa - in 1619 for James I. We stop on the spot in front of the building where Charles I was executed 30 years later. During his life he would carouse in the undercroft within. Behind the heavily decorated upper façade lies the hall itself - a space designed solely to communicate the power of kingship. For the ceiling, Rubens painted The Apotheosis of James I, (c. 1620s), a visual statement of the divine right of kings. Jones’s interior architecture performs the same task.
Heavy stone brackets beneath the gallery invoke the piazzas of Imperial Rome. The interior space gives you some idea why Palladio can still be so divisive today. ‘You enter into a Palladian villa and it is just jaw-dropping in terms of its scale. Palladio himself learned about the importance of scale through studying Roman remains,’ says Parry. It is an aspect of his work that has endeared Palladio to Modernist architects who typically have often been more interested in the space defined by walls than the walls themselves. But while Palladio was a master of creating space, he also adhered to the hierarchy of the classical orders, passed on from stonemason to stonemason and also enshrined in texts such as Vitruvius’ ancient Ten Books on Architecture and Serlio’s Five Books of Architecture (first published in London in 1611). In these books, the authors prescribed relationships between the diameter of a column, its height and the kind of decoration its capital should have. Today, traditionalists see Palladio as a great link with Antiquity; an architect who promoted order and a stable social structure in his work.
So the ideological tussle in the eighteenth century between Catholics and Protestants over Palladianism was just the beginning of Palladian dispute. Further down Whitehall is William Kent’s Treasury (or Old Treasury), built almost 100 years after the Banqueting House with parliament now in the ascendancy. Here Palladian ideals become involved in the debate between monarchists and parliamentarians.
Coincidentally, Whitehall Palace, of which the Banqueting House was originally just a part, had largely burned down in 1698. William Kent, who was another acolyte of Burlington, originally planned for the Treasury to have fifteen bays. Only seven were built, but the Palladian ideals of harmony and purity remain. Palladianism has now become an architecture not of glory but of virtue. What the Vicenzan’s architectural model could do for kings, it could also do for the people.
On the way to the Westminster School Dormitory, we pass through Horse Guards, which was begun by Kent but finished by his pupil John Vardy, with Burlington again acting as an overseer. Owing more to Palladio’s designs for rural villas in which stables and farm buildings form extended wings and unfurl into the landscape, Horse Guards shows how Palladianism became less rigorous in the 1750s. The famous cupola that rises above the parade and the capitals that protrude into windows are two features of which the Vicenzan would surely not have approved.
Chiswick House, which lies beyond our walking remit, may be the grandest expression of Burlington’s Palladian obsessions but our last port of call - the Westminster School Dormitory - is perhaps the most charming. This is a tight, almost utilitarian essay in classical architecture. One feels rather sorry for the great British educational establishment as it bravely insists that its old boy Sir Christopher Wren was responsible for the Dormitory’s original design.
Here, even more than at the Royal Academy, where we began our walk, the building marks the end of the English Baroque period with which Wren is associated. It is still a shock. Burlington, who took over the design from Wren, has almost denuded the building of ornament and left a regimented series of solids and voids. It is impossible not to wonder what Palladio himself would have made of it. He may have admired the purity and simplicity of the Dormitory, but surely, out of all the buildings on this tour, he would have understood Spencer House the best. The town house for a young aristocrat, it is a straightforward act of oneupmanship.
It was what Palladio built his name on in Vicenza and it is what John Vardy was asked to do in London. The elevation that faces the street was doctored in the late eighteenth century but around the back of the building you find the embodiment of why Palladio suited aristocratic pretension; a piano nobile with Doric columns separating seven windows. This is Palladianism as prestige.
For Eric Parry our walk has been an interesting side exercise, a realisation perhaps that the Palladians were on a similar journey to his; reaching back into the past for solutions for the future. Palladio himself, after all, learned his greatest lessons by leaving his native Vicenza for Rome in order to make a painstaking survey of the ancient architecture of that city in his book The Antiquities of Rome (1554). Just as Rome’s architecture was to be read by Palladio and his English disciples, so is Palladian London a text for architects like Parry.